Video Game audiences have matured, and developer ‘Naughty Dog’ shouldn’t pull punches when telling its story, but neither should the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
By: William Robertson Hume
Editors note: updated for clarity.
The following video contains:
- Intense Violence – Graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict. Extreme and realistic weapons and depictions of human injury and death
- Blood and Gore – Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts
- Strong Lyrics – References to profanity, sex, violence
“The Last of Us  obviously is a game made by adults to be played by adults. I should never prejudge this but it will probably be rated ’18’, I think it’s fair to say. And there’s that market for those people who like that sort of game. Adults who like that sort of game. And I think we cater for that… We have to ensure the right content is played by the right people – of appropriate ages in particular. ”
– Sony Head of Global Sales and Marketing
Speaking at Paris Games Week to the reaction the violent trailer has gotten, Sony spokesman Jim Ryan is referring to the ’18 rating’, the highest age rating that can be given by the Pan European Game Information ratings system (PEGI), that is likely to be given to the enormously anticipated The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2 for short). Wikipedia classifies this rating as ‘Adults Only’, however the PEGI website mentions no such distinction. ‘Adults Only’ is the ’18 rating’ equivalent and highest classifiable rating in North America. It is a rating TLOU2 should, but is not likely to receive.
Mr. Ryan’s comments make sense given the previous entry in the series was rated PEGI ’18’ in Europe: suitable for persons aged 18 years and over and contained: Extreme violence – Violence towards defenceless people, and Strong language. However, in North America it was rated a slightly lower ‘Mature 17+’ by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB).
What does it take these days for a video game to earn an ‘Adults Only’ rating for its violent content? The acclaimed Grand Theft Auto series always comes to mind, then is quickly swatted away by publishers, video game lobbyists, and ratings governing bodies, who all occasionally intersect. Dismissed even when the torture and mutilation of a character appears as an unmissable story beat (both The Last of Us Part II trailer and Grand Theft Auto V contain this). Why is nobody broaching the idea that this upcoming video game should warrant consideration for an ‘Adult’s Only’ rating when adult Naughty Dog game developers have to animate or program violence that is so unpleasant they have to work with blinders on?!
Some elements required for an ADULTS ONLY rating, befitting to ‘The Last of Us’:
“Suitable only for people 18 and older. Includes prolonged scenes of intense violence; graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict, extreme and realistic blood, gore, weapons, and depictions of human injury and death.” – FTC Web Archive
Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence. – ESRB Ratings
“Adult classification is applied when the level of violence reaches a stage where it becomes a depiction of gross violence and/or includes elements of specific types of violence. Gross violence… in general terms can be classified as depictions that would make the viewer feel a sense of revulsion.” – PEGI Index
The above image highlights the mostly disturbed reactions drawn from across the gaming community in both video and print. TLOU2 writer/ director Neil Druckmann take on the reaction to the violence is that ‘some people were disturbed’ and that although the visceral nature of the violence was done by design, only some of the focus was on the violence and “the main focus is on the new characters.” Evidently female characters who are unconscious, tied, beaten, strangled, and have yet to be given a name. Most of the journalists and influencers reacting to the brutality of the trailer are seasoned players and participants in a medium so well-known for using violence as a gameplay mechanic that its two most popular genres are called First and Third Person Shooters. Outsiders might think players have then become desensitized to violence, but a sequel to a vastly popular game comes along and still has the capacity to shock us. Why? It strikes a nerve as it unmistakably crosses some sort of line, one that should be more clearly defined. What to make if this game were saddled with the same M-rating by the ESRB that befell Gone Home? With the PlayStation 4’s eighth generation octo-core graphics being taken full advantage of we are witness to harsh realistic violence able to be rendered real-time in engine in gory 4K. In short, the beautifully realized uncanny valley can look harshly violent to some.
“I would just want to see games keep pushing the kind of stories we can tell, the kind of subject matter we tackle… I’d rather see us tackle different kind of subject matter and fail than play it safe. We feel we are in this privileged position with Sony because we have had enough success that Sony trusts Naughty Dog, to make these creative risks… I just hope more people can come to that position.”
– Neil Druckmann, creative writer/ director on The Last of Us Part II, [January 3rd, 2018]
The original Last of Us was a gaming landmark, selling over 12 million copies and reaching critical acclaim. It landed just outside Metacritic’s top 50 best reviewed games of all-time and won that year’s BAFTA award for Best Game as well as DICE‘s Game of the Year Award (in my opinion, the medium’s most reputable award). In a polarizing review, The New York Times said developer Naughty Dog “might be the most skilled maker of interactive drama in the world.”. In addition to Naughty Dog winning the VGX studio of the year award for the original game in 2014, the sequel they are developing has recently received the Most Anticipated Game award at The Game Awards. It is undeniably a very important game for the industry and it would benefit it commercially and artistically if the follow-up were properly rated ‘Adult’s Only’ by the ESRB. The level of violence in the series has proven necessary in telling its story so it shouldn’t sanded down, but neither should it be given a rating lower than it deserves.
It would be a tough rating for the Sony studio to receive, greatly limiting a portion of the audience and sales revenue. Due to the high-profile nature of the upcoming game and the last game setting an M-rating precedent, if the ESRB were to give an ‘Adults Only’ rating to a commercially successful series, the common policy of retailers (now in diminished capacity) not stocking ‘AO’ rated games would have to seriously reconsidered, if not to miss out on one of the most anticipated games in years and have more consumers will switch to online vendors. We are at a tipping point now where we are just over on the side of favouring digital, while retail is still very strong and a lot more open. A gaming-illiterate person cannot yet stumble onto buying some new game shopping online quite like they do in-store, though online retailers are getting close. We are in a unique time.
Giving The Last of Us Part II a rare, underutilized ‘Adult’s Only’ ESRB rating is a unique once in a lifetime opportunity for the health and growth of the video game industry.
This is visible in the way you have never seen viewers react so strongly to a game they knew was coming. As literally torturous as its violence is Rockstar and the Grand Theft Auto series opt for a detailed art style with their games that still makes all the violence seem cartoonish and game like. With real-time rendered cut scenes, dynamic & volumetric lighting with thousands of shaders, subsurface scattering presented on 8-core processor minimum with a grounded atmosphere and art-style, TLOU 2 graphics enter the uncanny valley. It doesn’t matter how seasoned a gamer you are, the content shown at Paris Games Week provokes a gut-level response in every gamer. Even though the audience is expecting and is used to mature footage, TLOU2 went even beyond that. The industry needs to mature and such an opportunity should not be wasted. It’s not entirely unprecedented. The similarly acclaimed Batman Arkham series graduated from a T to an M rating and sales were not affected, because the gaming audience has grown up.
Naughty Dog Writer/ Director Neil Druckmann had the audacity to tell one of video games’ darkest and most mature thematic stories ever and in my opinion he pulled it off. If he is to advance the conversation a higher rating might be the next logical step creatively and for the industry. Considering the greater darkness that surrounds Last of Us I’d like to see a rating that befits the darkly violent nature of the story and the heavy themes that surround it.
“If the first game, the theme was the love between these two characters… this story’s the counter of that… It’s about hate.”
– Neil Druckmann, speaking to Eurogamer [March 2016]
Considering the first game was an experience accurately described by Joystiq Richard Mitchell whose “ups and downs are exhausting… by the end I felt more that I had survived than completed it.” I can imagine what the other side of that coin is and it should be Adults Only rated.